Air Rarotonga Flight GZ614
RAR/AIT (Rarotonga to Aitutaki)
2 March 2010
Scheduled Departure: 10.30 hrs
Flight Time: 40 minutes
Aircraft Type: SAAB 340
Aitutaki is known as one of the largest and most beautiful lagoons in the world. Located 220 kilometres north of Rarotonga, this unlikely outpost of the southern Cook Islands was once home to the international airport of the Cook Islands, well before Rarotonga airport, and possesses a rich, varied aviation history.
Its aviation development began in 1942 when 1000 United States Servicemen and New Zealand labourers arrived on the island to build two airstrips, which were planned to halt the potential eastward advance of the Japanese. Men, money, machinery and general goods, considered necessary for the well being of the troops, were poured into the island, transforming its economy. Pictured below are a combined Army and New Zealand M.O.W. contingent of the original team of builders. (Bignell Collection)
In 1951, Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL – the forerunner of Air New Zealand) launched its plan for a luxury flying-boat service that would come to epitomise the sheer romance of air travel.
The ‘Coral Route’, a pleasure trip without parallel through the tropical beauty of the Pacific Islands, captivated tourists with its mix of comfort, style and destination appeal. It was to become an aviation legend.
Today, Air Rarotonga flies to Aitutaki from Rarotonga several times a day, landing and taking off on the original WWII runway.
A combination of video and land/lagoon-based photographs in this trip report provides a glimpse of the flight to Aitutaki, images of the original WWII coral airstrip, and, a look at what remains of TEAL’s now derelict seaplane jetty that extends into the peaceful, aqua coloured waters of Aitutaki’s lagoon at the uninhabited island of Akaiami. This is where Coral Route passengers once bathed in paradise-perfect waters, while their gigantic Solent seaplanes were refuelled en-route to Tahiti.
There’s a considerable amount of conflicting information about the history of the Coral Route. The information in this report was derived from a variety of sources, some of which are listed below.
If you prefer to watch, rather than read further detail, you can click this link now, or arrive at the same link further down and watch later.
The domestic section of Rarotonga International Airport is dominated by Air New Zealand’s check-in area. Air Rarotonga’s check-in stands alongside, adjacent to its booking office, and each check-in desk is dominated by gigantic 1960s style Avery Scales – the kind with the enormous clock face that used to frequent railway platforms, offering to advise your personal weight for 20 cents. With a strict 16 kg baggage allowance, several fellow travellers regard their unwieldy suitcases with an air of nervousness.
With bags checked, passengers are directed to the departure hall with a casual wave of the hand.
There’s a quiet 25 minute wait in the breezy atrium, characterised by relatively skinny westerners staring at iPhones, or poking mobiles with furrowed brows, and generously proportioned locals strolling languidly around, bare footed mostly, as well as local children frolicking and playing with simple objects. To one corner is a temporary looking kiosk with a large sign saying ‘International Departure Tax - $55’. Despite our flight being the only domestic departure from the airport in the next few hours, several fellow passengers appear confused as to whether Aitutaki is actually another country and approach the desk with uncertainty, before being waved away by the Rarotongan encased within. They sheepishly return to their seats with the rest of us. On the far side, the attendant of a small, tidy refreshment hut looks forlornly for customers but attracts none. She polishes the glass of its display case, slowly.
When 10.30am arrives, there’s no boarding call, not that it’s reasonable to expect any differently in a place as relaxed as Rarotonga. Somebody simply opens the door to the airfield and ambles away. The keenest amongst us slip through the open door within seconds, cameras at hand, to photograph the SAAB before passengers begin wandering all over the apron, obstructing a clear view.
The very clean Air Rarotonga SAAB 340 is a mere 25m away and boarding is via its own alloy staircase. A flight attendant is provided for this largest of Air Rarotonga’s fleet and she greets each passenger with a warm smile as they present their thermal paper boarding passes.
Within minutes, everyone is aboard and bags are stowed in the rear luggage compartment. The flight attendant hauls in the bi-folding stairs, slides them forward into their receptacle, slides her jump seat to its locking position, and shuts the door. We are ready to go.
The starboard engine starts spinning and gently spools into life, followed, of course, by the port. Our FA
runs through her safety announcement. There are four exits, which we can see her pointing to. The safety card shows that there are life jackets available, though where they are kept is a mystery. A quick feel around under the seat reveals nothing. No mention of life rafts.
We begin rolling and taxi to the far western end of the runway, turning 360 degrees before beginning our takeoff roll of 28 seconds. We climb to a cruise altitude of 10,000 feet. Even though it’s just a 40 minute flight, there’s a refreshment service.
Aitutaki’s lagoon appears gradually from the dark blue ocean water as a turquoise triangle bordered by a ruffle of white, where the Pacific swells are turned to foam by its reef. Inside the triangle, the water displays the most incredible gradients of green through to an almost surreal aqua, mottled with pink by the coral heads that stud the lagoon’s floor.
The image below shows the eastern end of the WWII runway.
The link below provides a short video of the entire flight. Nearing final approach, GZ614 passes over the eastern end of the WWII, now bitumen sealed runway, before tracking to the north and completing its final approach from the west.
Youtube link from above:
On Sundays, planes currently take a different approach to Aitutaki from the one seen in the above video. They avoid the lagoon and main island altogether. This is an attempt to minimise offence to locals, who, being predominantly devout Christians, are strictly opposed to flights arriving on Sundays. Tourists arriving on these flights are currently welcomed to the island by a picket line of protesters. In recent weeks, even Royal Air Force New Zealand Hercules flights carrying much needed supplies for the cyclone recovery effort have been met by protesters.
Unfortunately, Aitutaki was badly damaged by Cyclone Pat on 12 February 2010. As can be seen, the airport terminal building has lost all of its windows and much of the roof tiling has been blown away.
Standing alongside the terminal, the newer of the airport’s two fire fighting appliances can be seen, still sporting a smashed windscreen. It stands at the ready for each flight arrival.
Other evidence of the ferocity of Cyclone Pat can be found around the airport. These two images were taken at the eastern end of the main runway. One piece of corrugated iron can be seen firmly embedded in a palm tree. Another is wrapped around the airport’s perimeter fence wire like a piece of tissue paper.
The strength of feeling about Sunday arrivals is on display around the main island, with many houses displaying signs discouraging these flights in their front gardens. The local mayor has discouraged the placement of such signs in English, reminding Aitutakians of the tiny island’s dependence on tourism, particularly in the wake of Cyclone Pat. Aitutakians have been asked to state their protest in the local language – Maori.
The two runways at Aitutaki airport (6,000ft and 5,000ft x 300ft wide) were built at a reported cost of around four and a half million US dollars. The extremely high cost for that period was attributed to the extensive land reclamation and swamp-filling involved in the development. As with elsewhere in the Pacific, a composition of a coral-sand-clay mix, extracted by drag-line from the bottom of the lagoon, was used to surface the two strips.
Although today’s main strip has now been resurfaced, the alternative strip meets the main runway where the terminal building stands. Sadly, a new coral road has been cut across it creating a short cut for vehicles to current the terminal building, so it is no longer in use. However, the original surface has reportedly proved very durable and it seems it would still support daily use, were it not for the recent incursion.
Travelling around the main island, we came across an old DC3 in the back yard of Aitutaki’s last Mayor. Stopping to ask a few questions, it emerged that the DC3, unfortunately has no history with Aitutaki, having been brought to the island for the filming of ‘The Silent Ones’ in 1993. No evidence of a final registration could be found.
Not far from the main township of Arutanga, The Air Rarotonga office is found.
Flying Boats History
Supplies and equipment first arrived at the port of Avarua, where a wharf had not yet been constructed.
Dynamite was used to blast out coral heads in the magnificent lagoon on the east side of the main island to facilitate the use of drag-lines for the construction of both airstrips. This was of immense importance to the later use of the lagoon as a ’Leg Destination’ for TEAL’s flying boats. Current knowledge of conservation and the fragility of coral environments would have almost certainly prevented the work these days – but two seaplane runways were prepared, each 10,000ft long. Empty oil drums were used at first as marker buoys. Channels had to be blasted out to service the seaplanes, and a mine yawl was used to go out to them.
It was on this overall platform that TEAL/Air New Zealand would start the famous Coral Route using the lagoon in November 1952. The extremely fine crushed coral sand that lines the floor of the lagoon in the area of the seaplane runways creates a unique azure coloured water.
The origins of the route lay in the RNZAF’s wartime transports to the islands. Out of these grew the post-war civilian services of New Zealand’s then domestic airline – National Airways Corporation or NAC. Converted Sunderlands and DC3s were the first aircraft types used. In 1950, TEAL acquired the Auckland-Suva (Fiji) route, and its upmarket Solents took over from NAC’s lumbering Sunderlands. Within a year, TEAL had obtained permission to operate an Auckland to Papeete (Tahiti) service and the ‘Coral Route’ was born.
A Catalina flying boat, owned by the department of Civil Aviation, was used to survey the route and establish suitable landing sites for the Solents. Locations were established in Suva and Samoa, but the heavy swell in Rarotonga made it unsuitable for the Solents. Aitutaki, the most pristine, unspoiled stop of the route was therefore chosen as the ideal alternative.
When Pacific theatre hostilities concluded much further to the west, and with the ending of the war, the airstrip was left to the Aitutakians. Few though, could have foreseen the major role these strips were to play in developing and changing the island group, its infrastructure and its people.
Initially, DC6s flew the first leg of the trip from Auckland to Suva (Fiji). Solents then flew from Suva to Tonga, Samoa and Aitutaki. This service ceased in the early 1950s, and Aitutaki became the Cook Islands only air connection with the world outside. Tasman Empire Air Lines (TEAL) was the antecedent of Air New Zealand and flew the Solents, mammoth four engine seaplanes, from Auckland to Tahiti via the lagoons of Fiji, Samoa and Aitutaki.
The following Youtube video provides another interesting perspective on the Coral Route, including original footage of TEAL’s Sunderlands, the lagoon and wharf in Aitutaki, and passengers in Tahiti. The accuracy of the commentary seems a bit suspect, with statements like ‘Auckland, the capital of New Zealand…’.
Maps of the period show designated bands dotted at angles across the south-eastern corner of the lagoon, labelled ‘Seaplane alighting strip’. At the end of one strip on the map, jutting from the main aquatic runway, is the old-fashioned symbol for an anchor at the then uninhabited island of Akaiami. This is where TEAL’s gigantic Solents wallowed up to a jetty for their refuelling stop.
Today, all that remains of the original packed coral wharf at Akaiami is the derelict remains of black stones that formed the original foundations. Nearby, basic lodges (Gina’s Beach Lodge) can be leased although the island remains uninhabited by any permanent population.
The below images of Akaiami, One Foot Island, and a couple of selected others provide a sense of why travellers of the period reported the immense beauty and extraordinary waters of the island.
The fuel for the Solents, which was pumped by hand from the jetty into the flying boat’s tanks, made its journey there in a manner almost a laboured as the plane’s. It was taken by sea from New Zealand to Aitutaki, where the tanker stood off the passage at Arutanga (Aitutaki’s port), on the western side of the main island. From the tanker, drums of fuel were unloaded by lighter (a smaller barge-like vessel) and taken to Arutanga wharf, and thence by boat around the southern end of the main island and across the wide lagoon to the wharf on Akaiami, to await the arrival (on Thursdays) of the thirsty Solent and its 45 passengers.
The Solent’s passengers were carried on an upper and lower deck. Hostesses provided silver service and cooked full meals for them, in flight. Here are the first six TEAL Hostesses.
On the refuelling stopover on Aitutaki’s lagoon, while the dozens of fuel drums were emptied into the plane’s tanks, the passengers had two hours on the island, during which they swam or lazed on the white sand under the canopy of coconut palms. As romantic as this may sound, Akaiami evidently swarms with mosquitoes, due to the presence of fresh water on the island, so, lazing in the shade may not have been as pleasant as we would like, in these days, to imagine.
A crew rests while refuelling takes place in the background…
Travel on the coral route was expensive, during a period when most international passengers still went by sea, and many of the world’s rich and famous stepped off onto the island of Akaiami.
Flying was also exhilarating. The 34 ton Solents took a minute and a half to break free of the water on takeoff and often flew only 1000 feet above sea level. On one occasion on Aitutaki’s lagoon, one of the Solent’s engines failed on takeoff. The passengers were stranded for over a week on the main island. The upmarket castaways were by all accounts reluctant to resume their journey when the seaplane was finally repaired. You may appreciate their position…
In 1954, DC6s replaced the Solents between Auckland and Fiji, but TEAL’s Solent Aranui continued to fly the island chain. By 1960, with the building of runways on other islands, the coral route era came to a close. At that point, Aranui was brought home to Auckland by captain Joe Shephard. Lovingly tended by members of the Solent Preservation Society, Aranui now resides at Auckland’s Museum of Motor Transport, Technology and Social History (MOTAT).
In March 1974, The Queen opened the new international airport in Rarotonga, thereby launching the new International gateway to The Cook Islands.
‘Coming on a Jet Plane, A Pictorial History of the Cook Islands International Airport Rarotonga 1944 – 1994’ - Colin Hall
The Cook Islands, 1998, Ewan Smith
For more information on TEAL’s Solents:
[Edited 2010-03-28 01:32:18]
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